A cult, someone once wisely said, is any group you don’t like.
The Encyclopedia Britannica defines it more objectively. It actually has to do with the way people in cults worship their God.
Cultic worship is so universal in religion that some historians of religion define religion as cult. Cultic worship is social, and this means more than a group worshipping the same deity in the same place at the same time. Cult is structured with a division of sacred personnel (priests) who lead and perform the cultic ceremonies for the people, who are in a more distant relation with the deity. The sacred personnel are designated by the choice and acceptance both of the deity and of the worshipping group. The words and actions of the cultic performance are divided into roles assigned to the leaders and to the worshippers. It is the tendency of cultic worship to replace spontaneity, which it once had, with set and even rigid forms of words and acts. These are preserved by tradition, and they generally have a sacredness that is based on the belief that the directions for cultic worship came ultimately from the deity.1
So there are several distinguishing features of a cult, namely:
So the typical clergy and laity distinction of churches today (and not just today, but for many centuries now) makes both Christian and Catholic worship — with their paid and trained sacred personnel — truly cultic. It all began years ago, when something started to go on in the churches that had never happened before — the people became silent and only the voices of their leaders were heard. Before this, everyone came with something to share, as Paul instructed the Corinthians.3 In his first letter he told them the outcome of God being among them would be that all would prophesy. All, not just the clergy,4 would come with a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, and a tongue (if there were an interpretation). Both the men and the women could speak, as long as the women wore their head coverings when they prayed or prophesied.5 It was a true priesthood of all the believers, where all could and were expected to speak the very words of God.6
Yet for many reasons on the part of both the people and their leaders, something started to happen in the young church even before the first century ended. The church divided into clergy and laity, and the laity were silenced. They were conquered. The apostle John, writing at the end of the apostolic age, called these conquerors the Nicolaitans:
Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. (Revelation 2:6)7
The word Nicolaitan comes from two Greek words, nikos, meaning conquest, triumph — victory, and laos, people. The Nicolaitans were victorious over the people.8 The change that this produced in the Church was profound. The Christian historians also record this change, noting that many even considered it a curse:
Between the years AD 100 and AD 500, the Christian Church changed almost beyond recognition. ... [At first] The organization of the church was still fluid…there were no creeds to be recited, no set forms of worship… [By AD 500] The worship of the church was entirely liturgical with fixed, set forms of prayer… Most of these changes came gradually over four hundred years. On the whole they were for the good and reflected healthy growth on the part of the church. But not all the changes were necessarily for the better. Many today would consider the alliance with the state and the transformation of Christianity into an official religion to be at best a mixed blessing, if not actually a curse. Many would be less than enthusiastic about the pattern of ministry that emerged and about the suppression of the free forms of worship.9
To this day the people remain silent in the churches across America, indeed, across all of Christendom. True, they sing when they are supposed to, respond when they are supposed to, give money when they are supposed to, stand up, sit down, file in and file out when they are supposed to. They are led in all these things by their leaders, whom they expect to be closer to God than themselves because they have been educated in the skills of oratory and doctrine. But they are not told that they are participating in classic cultic worship. Nor are they told that this is not what Messiah 10 died for.
The people do not know, nor does each generation of conquerors know, that their worship and their faith are built on another foundation than the one Paul and the other apostles laid.11 It is an ancient practice, but it does not go back to the beginning. 1 Corinthians 14:24-33 is the beginning, where all come prepared and have the freedom to speak. They do not know, and their conquerors do not teach them, that their silence in the churches is the ringing affirmation that the Holy Spirit does not dwell there.12 They are not told that only the dead go down to silence before their God.13 All they know is that this is the way it has always been, so this must be the way it should be.14 When the least of the brothers could no longer speak in the gathering and be heard, the Holy Spirit had no more voice among the people, and He departed.
He will not dwell in silence, nor will He continue to be head over any church where the people lose their outspokenness:
...but Christ was faithful as a Son over His house whose house we are, if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end. (Hebrews 3:6)
Confidence is a very special word here. It is number 3954 in Strong’s Greek Concordance of the Bible, and means freedom of speaking, unreservedness in speech, openly, frankly, free and fearless confidence, cheerful courage, boldness, assurance. This means if God’s people lose their outspokenness in the gatherings, as Paul spoke of in 1 Corinthians 14:24-26, then the Messiah will no longer be head over that house.